Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Netflix Rapid Fire Reviews - February '08

Child's Play
While I have always loved horror movies, I tend to be more of a fan of monsters ripping people to shreds than weirdoes with knives chasing after cheerleaders, which is why I never bothered with the Chucky films before. I figured that it was about time I finally see this film though, since it's one of the classics of the genre, and much to my surprise I came away loving it. Perhaps this is because Chucky is as much a monster as he is a psycho with a knife, but I think it's mainly because the movie's plot was so original and the special effects were so well done. I've always been a huge fan of practical effects in movies, and considering that Howard Berger, one of the best modern special effects and make-up guys in Hollywood worked on this film, it's no wonder that Child's Play was so visually pleasing. However, gore and explosions do not a great movie make (though they do help), and what surprised me the most about this movie was the story. Sure it had some cheesy dialogue and revolves around a ludicrous concept, but the filmmakers managed to walk an incredibly thin line between humor and horror so well that everything worked perfectly in my opinion. I finally see what all the fans of this film have known since the eighties, and let me tell you, it feels good.

Jackie Chan's First Strike
I've said it before and I'll say it again: Jackie Chan movies are only as good as their fight scenes. So how are the fight scenes in Jackie Chan's First Strike? Pretty damn good. The main one that comes to mind takes place in a large hall of some sort with a balcony that looks as though it's being prepared for some sort of party or gathering. The most notable portion of this fight involves Jackie fending off a horde of bad guys with staffs by wielding a regular, garden variety aluminum ladder. If you've seen this action sequence before, you've surely never forgotten it. As far as fight scene props are concerned, the ladder in this sequence is absolutely one of the most inventive and entertaining objects that Chan (or any other action star, I would wager) has ever used in an onscreen battle. The only word I can think of to describe this fight scene is "breathtaking". The other action sequence that immediately comes to mind when I think about First Strike is the climactic underwater battle. I've seen my share of similar sequences, most of which are slow and boring, but with the inclusion of sharks, Jackie's patented brand of comedy, and some ingenuitive choreography to the equation, the submerged tussle between Chan and some tough guys in a water tank at an aquarium is easily the most exciting and entertaining underwater fight I have ever witnessed. The only thing that First Strike is really missing, as is the case with many of Jackie Chan's films, is a worthwhile story, but if you're a fan of the Chan you should know well enough by now that the plot isn't the reason why these types of films are worth watching.

Who doesn't love the movie Office Space? My guess is that the only people who don't are those who have never seen it. Then again, who hasn't seen that movie? It plays at least once a day on Comedy Central, it seems. Why do I bring up Office Space? Because ever since I first saw and fell in love with that film years ago I've been eagerly awaiting a follow-up feature from writer/director Mike Judge. Skip to the year 2006. A little movie called Idiocracy soars so far enough below the radar that I'm not even sure it ever had a theatrical release, because the first time I heard about it was when I saw a copy of the DVD sitting on a shelf in Blockbuster. Admittedly, despite my appreciation of Judge's Office Space, when I read the plot synopsis of Idiocracy, I was a bit turned off. An average Joe (played by Luke Wilson) is cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the future to find that he is now the smartest person alive because society has been dumbed down by laziness, fast food, and cable TV to the point that even one of the least intelligent people in modern day is a genius by comparison. I was skeptical to say the least, and as it turns out, my initial reaction was almost spot on. Idiocracy was fairly idiotic. Yes, there were some funny moments and original concepts, but all in all I just wasn't interested in jokes about the president being a gangster and TV shows dedicated to people getting hit in the balls. The film's core was an intelligent idea, but it was surrounded by so many MAD TV-style jokes that I found myself rolling my eyes rather than rolling on the floor with laughter. Idiocracy isn't the worst film I've ever seen, but Office Space it is not.

Though it is shortened to simply "Supercop" in America, the full title of this film is actually "Police Story 4: Supercop". Honestly though, the name change doesn't bother me much because this films doesn't really feel like much of a sequel to the first two Police Story films to me. Sure, it's got Jackie playing Inspector Chan and Maggie Cheung as his hapless girlfriend May, but the action and tone of this film feels a little less serious than it's predecessors if that makes any sense. Think about how the original Die Hard featured some pretty off the wall action sequences, but when Live Free Or Die Hard came out it took the action to a whole new level of un-believability. Well, to me the same thing has happened here. This by no means means that Supercop is a bad movie, just that it feels different from the Police Story franchise to me. The easiest difference between this film and the first two Police Story films is of course the addition of Michelle Yeoh to the cast as Inspector Yang. Her character marks the first instance in which Inspector Chan has had a partner or sidekick, but Yeoh fits into the mix fairly well. Her character's super-serious nature only adds to the humor which Chan's films already tend to have, and she handles herself extremely well in the midst of the action that we've all come to expect from a Jackie Chan film. As for the plot, Yeoh's Inspector Yang teams up with Inspector Chan to help bring down a drug lord, who at some point during the plot takes May captive. The highlights of the action here are the (literally) explosive battle at the drug lord's hideout in the jungle and the climactic set piece atop a moving train.

As a big fan of horror movies and a major comic book nerd, it only seems natural that I would eventually track down and watch Creepshow, a film comprised of short horror segments based upon the EC comic books of the 40's and 50's. As it turns out though, having seen the movie, I would have much rather spent the 2 hours of it's running time actually reading some of those old comics that Creepshow was an homage to as opposed to sitting through the film. I found moments of worth throughout Creepshow's five short segments, but overall felt that it failed to invoke the same feeling of delight and admiration while watching it that I tend to have when I look through the ratty old horror and sci-fi mags that I have at my disposal. The first segment (starring Ed Harris) was definitely the most dull of the lot in my opinion, and thus a rather poor way to begin the movie. The second segment, which stars writer Stephen King and feels more comical than horrific, was probably my favorite. The rest of the segments were just fairly forgettable (a statement proven by the fact that as I type this I'm having trouble remembering what they were even about). I like the idea of anthology films and I love the idea of paying homage to EC comics and their other pre-comic-code brethren, but in my opinion Stephen King and George Romero largely missed their mark with Creepshow.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
To read this review, click here.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
To read this review, click here.

The Omega Man
As I continue to make use of Netflix as a way to catch up on all of the classic films from the past that I've missed out on the joy of watching over the years, I would have undoubtedly gotten around to sitting down with a copy of The Omega Man eventually, but in all honesty, the recent release of I Am Legend (a remake of The Omega Man) bumped this film up a few notches on my list of cinematic priorities. Audiences seemed fairly divided by I Am Legend, but I find myself more personally conflicted in my feelings on The Omega Man. The core concept is classic material by this point considering that there are now three different adaptations of the original source material spanning more than 40 years of Hollywood's history. In a post-apocalyptic setting, one man (sometimes accompanied by a canine companion), be it Vincent Price, Charlton Heston, or most recently Will Smith, must make a stand against varying types of vampires, zombies, and or cult members to keep the human race from going completely extinct. As far as those villains are concerned, I think that The Omega Man has the weakest threat of the three cinematic versions of this story. The "bad guys" here are essentially albinos who can't go outside during the day and want to destroy all technology and live like the Amish. They're less threatening than the inhuman creatures of The Last Man On Earth or I Am Legend, and in my opinion that is The Omega Man's biggest downfall. I love all of the scenes of Heston's character trying to survive on his own and essentially going on with his life, but any conflicts he is involved in just seem silly based on the foes he's confronting. All in all, The Omega Man is a very watch-able film, but it's not without it's flaws. Unfortunately, while I enjoy all three films based on Richard Matheson's original novel I Am Legend, I don't honestly feel that any of them have done the concept the full level of justice that it so obviously deserves.

Body Snatchers (1993)
To read this review, click here.

The People vs. Larry Flynt
I'm not sure just how much of Milos Forman's film documenting the life of Hustler Magazine founder Larry Flynt is true and how much of it is fabricated to make the narrative more wild and entertaining, but I don't really care, because whatever combination of fact and fiction he used to tell his story is, it's perfect. I love a good "true story" movie; especially if it's about an extremely unique person such as Larry Flynt. Part of the fun of watching a movie like The People vs. Larry Flynt is being able to live vicariously through the lives of people who are much more interesting than you'll ever be. Watching Woody Harrelson throw an orange at a judge and knowing that it may have actually happened in the real life of the person he was depicting just made for a fun viewing experience. Speaking of Harrelson, while I've seen him in numerous films before, I don't think I've ever liked him as much as I did in The People vs. Larry Flynt. Not necessarily because I liked the person he was playing, but because this role required a lot of dedication from it's actor and I could totally see the work that Woody put into it. Edward Norton and Crispin Glover were welcome additions to the cast as they're both great character actors, and even Courtney Love was (I thought) exceptionally good in her role as Flynt's love interest. This movie could be a tough sell to some people depending on their views and ability to sympathize with an often unsympathetic individual, but for my money, watching The People vs. Larry Flynt is a great way to spend two hours and nine minutes of your time.

Crime Story
Crime Story is somewhat of an enigma to me. The main star of the film is Jackie Chan, but there are hardly any fight scenes or stunts to be seen. There is a chase here and a quick tussle there, but overall this movie focuses way more on plot and drama than any of Chan's other films that I've seen. This is especially curious since this movie came out in 1993, well before Chan's more recent string of less-than-impressive films in which he can no longer pull off the stunt work that he used to be able to. I'm in no way opposed to a Jackie Chan vehicle with more plot than punches though, so I'm willing to accept the fact that this movie is rather dry in the action department, but the simple fact is that without all of the flips and kicks to keep the audience entertained while sitting through a Chan film, the story has to take over and do most of the heavy lifting, which it does not really do in this case. I admit, the quality of the acting was overall better in Crime Story than in most of Jackie's more adrenaline-driven films, but the plot was just as simple as any of those others. Chan is a cop who's trying to track down some kidnappers and discovers that there's a traitor in his midst. There were no real twists or turns to speak of either, which led to my feeling that the film dragged a bit too much between the very rare fight sequences. The climax in the burning building isn't bad, but if you're looking for excitement, try out some of the other films in Jackie Chan's library of kung-fu flicks.

This film was one of the biggest indie sensations of the 90's, which I've been well aware of for years, but it wasn't until I heard director Kevin Smith state on his podcast that it was the film that inspired him to make movies that I decided to track it down and watch it. The simplest way for me to describe my feelings on Slacker is to say that if I were Kevin Smith, I'd probably still be working at the Quik Stop because the only thing that this movie inspired me to do was hit the fast forward button, which I almost did multiple times while viewing it. I was with the film for the first fifteen minutes or so as I wondered where the movie was going and when the plot would kick in. As it turns out, the plot never kicks in (because there isn't one) and the movie goes nowhere. All Slacker is is a series of conversations between random people about random things. Person A talks to person B for five minutes, then person B leaves and goes to talk to person C, then person C leaves and goes to talk to person D, and so on and so forth up until about person X or Y. There was just nothing about this movie to keep me interested. I'm sure that there are several other people out there who, like Smith, see some artistic merit or deeper meaning to this film, but I'm just not one of them.

Quiz Show
A man who genuinely wants to give his best shot at being a winner on a popular television trivia game show is initially appalled at the idea of being allowed to cheat by the producers of the program, but eventually settles into a life full of lies and deceit, becoming the biggest bread winner ever to grace the small screen. The man in question soon learns that no good thing can last forever, however, when the studio executives decide that it's time for hie reign at the quiz show champion to end, which leads to the discovery by the media, and the public in general, that his entire run on the show was a scripted ruse. Based on true events that took place during the 1950's, Robert Redford's Quiz Show is entertaining, but not necessarily what I would call a solid film. The pace of the film dragged a bit for me at times, and I honestly felt that the running time (which is in excess of two hours) could have been trimmed a bit. The story being told is very interesting, perhaps even moreso if you're aware that the events taking place really (in some capacity at least) happened, but I could have done without a small amount of the movie's unnecessary exposition. If Quiz Show had chugged along at a bit more brisk of a pace, I feel as though I would have been able to enjoy it a bit more, but short of that critique, there's not much to complain about. The directing is solid, the plot (as I mentioned) is interesting and entertaining, and the acting is top-notch (particularly in the cases of both Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro).

The Lawnmower Man
I'm not sure if it was the peculiar title or the abnormal artwork on the front of the VHS/DVD packaging for The Lawnmower Man, but for some reason I've always wanted to see this movie. It certainly couldn't have been much else that drew me to it, because up until the moment that I pressed play on my DVD player I really had no clue what the hell this film was about. What is it about, then? A scientist (Pierce Brosnan) working with an unprecedented new virtual reality technology loses touch with his life and becomes too wrapped up in his work, experimenting on a simple-minded yard-worker (Jeff Fahey) in his free time. By the time the scientist realizes the consequences that could come from his work, his test subject has transformed from an unassuming simpleton into a megalomaniacal freak of nature. The main thing that one must remember when watching The Lawnmower Man in this day and age is that back when it was made, this film was employing the use of cutting edge visual effects. The visuals are fairly laughable and hard to take seriously nowadays, but if you can wipe the condescending grin off of your face long enough to become engrossed in the plot, The Lawnmower Man is actually a pretty decent science fiction/cyberpunk movie. There are some interesting high concepts at work which are constantly battling the cheesy acting and poor special effects, and unfortunately the acting and effects come out on top a bit more often than the intriguing concepts and story. Don't be fooled by your eyes though; there is some validity to what's going on onscreen.

Planet of the Apes (1968)
Over the years I've always felt that I owed it to myself to see the original 1968 version of Planet of the Apes because it's such a classic, iconic, and well known film, but I honestly never had much interest in it. Part of the reason for my disinterest is probably that I (along with, I assume, everyone else of sound mind in the world) knew what the twist ending was already. Still, as I said, I felt obliged to see the film since it's a classic, and I honestly came away from it a bit surprised. Not by the twist ending of course, but by the fact that the movie was so damn enjoyable despite the fact that the climax had been spoiled for me years prior to my viewing it. The main misconception I'd had about this film, it turns out, is that it hinged on the final shot and the now famous line therein, but what I'd never realized until I actually saw the movie is that it has so much more worth throughout the entire running time than just those last sixty seconds or so which everyone knows about. The plot in general was much more interesting and gripping than I'd imagined it would be. A lot of very intriguing concepts involving the future of the Earth and communication between species are touched upon. The main conflict of the film isn't just apes versus humans either, but instead it focuses around a battle of logic over pride and tradition. In simple terms, Planet of the Apes was just a lot smarter than I expected it to be. We're not talking about Stephen Hawking here, but if you've always thought that Planet of the Apes was just about big monkeys whipping Charlton Heston and dragging him around on a leash, you (just like I did) have another thing coming. Also, the make-up effects looked a lot better than I expected them to for 1968, which accounts for an extra added thumbs up from me.

The Hudsucker Proxy
If you want to look at their catalogue of work in fairly broad strokes (and when I say "fairly" in this case, I mean "very"), the Coen brothers seem to enjoy making two specific types of films: crime dramas such as Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, and No Country For Old Men, and crime comedies such as Raising Arizona, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers. Looking at this trend, there are only two Coen brothers movies which I don't really feel fit into either of those categories based on the simple fact that neither of them really center around crime as a focal point. Those films are Barton Fink, which is a straight-up (though rather heady) drama, and The Hudsucker Proxy, which I would simply call a comedy. The Hudsucker Proxy is also the only movie I can think of which cries out for me to describe it as "charming". There's just something so likable and innocent about this film. Perhaps it's the main character (played by Tim Robbins) who acts like a big kid with a positive outlook on everything despite the questionable environments he tends to occupy, or perhaps it's the fancy-free directorial style of the film which is obviously very well thought out and professional, but at the same time gives the events of the movie an air of fantasy, almost like a fairy tale for adults. The plot focuses around a small town man who, through a set of rather (unbeknownst to him) diabolical circumstances arranged by his boss (who is played by Paul Newman), ends up being set up to fail as the sudden head of a massive corporation, but who unexpectedly thrives in his position of power. There are a lot of very specific scenes, themes, and reasons that I could cite as to why I think that everyone can enjoy, and should see, The Hudsucker Proxy, but just suffice to say that it is an excellent film on every conceivable level.

Porko Rosso
From Hayao Miyazaki, the mind that gave us Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, Howl's Moving Castle, and Spirited Away, comes the story of a 1930's fighter pilot with the head of a pig. That's right. After watching the spirits of his fellow pilots ascend to heaven after they were all killed in a particularly bloody air battle, Porko Rosso is cursed to have the head of a pig. This affliction may be embarrassing, but it doesn't stop him from being the best pilot in the skies. Porko continues taking odd jobs to keep himself in food, drink, and supplies with which to fix up his famed red plane, but when he's in need of some major work on his ride, he flies into unfriendly skies to acquire the aid of an old friend and a spunky young aircraft designer/mechanic. Of Miyazaki's other films, I've only seen Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa, and Spirited Away. I wasn't crazy about Spirited Away (although it looked spectacular), but I quite like the other two, and Porko Rosso stacks up right beside both of them as some of the best 2D animated films that I've seen in recent memory. The story is interesting and entertaining, there's a healthy dose of humor that hits it's mark every time, the characters are unique and lovable, the action is thrilling, and the animation is absolutely beautiful. The one aspect of Porko Rosso that I was a bit disappointed by was the voice acting. Most of the voices were fine, but I specifically had a problem with Michael Keaton's performance as Rosso himself. In general I really like Keaton as an actor, but he just sounded as though he didn't really give a damn about what he was recording to me in this case. It wouldn't be such a big deal, but since he was providing the voice of the films main character I was a little annoyed with his performance. Aside from that though, Rosso is a wholly enjoyable film that I can't wait to watch again and again.

Romance & Cigarettes
When I received a text message from a friend recommending that I watch a movie called Romance & Cigarettes based on the fact that at one point during the film Christopher Walken fights some police officers while in the midst of performing a choreographed musical number, there was absolutely no way that I could avoid immediately adding said film to my Netflix queue. Much to my delight, the sequence in question plays out just as I'd anticipated based on the summary given to me via text message, but as for the rest of the film, I most certainly cannot say that I expected just about anything else that occurred during it's running time. Written and directed by actor John Turturro, Romance & Cigarettes is indeed a musical. It's story involves a man named Nick Murder (James Gandolfini) whose marriage to his wife Kitty (Susan Sarandon) begins to fall apart when she discovers that he's been having an affair with a whimsical younger woman named Tula (Kate Winslet). Honestly, aside from the previously mentioned musical number starring Christopher Walken, I can't think of a whole lot about this movie to rave about. However, at the same time I know that it must have some other redeeming qualities because I did manage to enjoy myself while I was watching it. The plot may sound simple and stereotypical enough, but the addition of singing and dancing places this film into a whole different ball park from where I'd expect it to reside. I suppose that the best way I can sum up the experience of watching this movie for other interested parties out there is with the phrase "expect the unexpected".

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